How the Tiger Got Its Stripes by Sage K., age 13
The tiger’s ears twitched nervously back and forth, listening to every sound in the jungle: the chirping of a bird, a rustle of wind.
Stealthily, he prowled across the earthen floor, his paws making no sound whatsoever, as if made of silk cushions. In the cool darkness of the moon, the tiger’s eyes glowed an unnatural sheen of jade, reflecting the color of the surrounding trees and vines. No stripes decorated the tiger’s body, instead his body was a deep sunset orange.
Back in this time, all animals could speak (later on they are cursed to never utter a word again-but that’s another story).
This particular tiger was named John Smith. A crunch of leaves caused John to leap and he turned to see them move, revealing the coiling lengths of a snake.
With one swipe as fluid as quicksilver, John had the snake writhing in one paw. He scowled an ever-present frown, growling “What is your business here?” as he shook the snake violently, causing the poor creature’s head to flop back and forth.
“My brothers and sisters, sir, they need your help.” he hissed between shakes. “They have found a pool of shadows. Yes, you heard me correctly, sir, and our mother promises whoever touches the shadows first will inherit all her possessions.”
The snakes of that time were known for the immense amount of treasure
they collected, owing to their discreet shape and cleverness.
“A pool…made of shadows?” John inquired. The snake nodded vigorously. “And what should you need me for?” he roared angrily.
“A lake surrounding the Pool of Shadows, sir,” he rasped, “Called the Lake of Horrors. A lake with a treacherous, treacherous being, oh yes-a sea serpent, a water animal that has mutated, is now ugly and furious with the world that will do anything-oh, anything- to get revenge on it and its inhabitants. We cannot pass through it, we cannot swim-but surely you, Tiger sir-I’m sure you can.” Here the snake gasped for breath, quite unsure whether the tiger would believe him or not.
But John had no intention of declining the offer. In fact, he was attempting to formulate a plan to steal the snakes’ treasure, a plan that would surely win him some lovely, lovely, gold or silver or glistening rubies larger than his eyes, yes, oh yes, the tiger thought, how could I decline this gorgeous offer?
Without knowing it, John’s lips were pulling back ever so slightly, exposing pearly white incisors. The snake, certain that John planned to use those teeth on his body, inched backwards: “I suppose that’s a No then, quite alright, quite alright sir.”
“NO!” The poor snake shrank back in fear, slithering away as fast as he could, regretting asking the tiger for his help in the first place. Quickly, John tried to correct his mistake. “I mean, ‘no’; dear snake, of course I will help you. Lead the way, if you please.”
“Oh-okay. F-follow me, s-sir.” The snake, still shaken from his near-death experience, made his way through the foliage, followed by the orange beast twenty times his size.
Choruses from the first snake’s (Hugo, he said his name was) brothers and sisters followed thereafter, for snakes were known to repeat themselves or others. John had arrived at the Lake of Horrors, and about thirty snakes swarmed toward him in one excited motion. Hugo yelled in John’s ear over the din of the surrounding voices.
“We’re going to climb on your back now, Mister Tiger sir, yes, we will, and then you will swim across and we will go to the Pool of Shadows, and when we are done we will climb onto your back again, Mister Tiger sir, and you will swim back to Mother and we will thank you very much, Mister Tiger sir, for you have helped us reach the Pool of Shadows!”
Grunting his consent, John huffed and stretched out the front part of his body to create a place for the snakes to crawl onto him. Choruses of ‘HOORAY!’s followed, and, as one body, the snakes slithered onto his back. John shuddered in disgust, for having thirty-one snakes swarm onto one’s back felt like a pile of oozing slugs all piled on top of one another after a particularly drenching rain.
It couldn’t be all that bad, could it? Those slimy snakes must have been exaggerating when they called it Lake of Horrors. Silly little drama queens. How bad could it be? John usually wasn’t one for optimism…but for once, could it be? Was he trying to comfort himself? The mighty tiger, could he sense the foreign emotion? The one feeling that he had never felt before? Would he name it or just go on labeling it as stupidity? But no, he felt it for sure, and despised it wholeheartedly: fear.
Thinking it best not to dwell on emotions, John shook his head to clear it. Drawing in a deep breath, he jumped into the water, without a second thought.
Immediately, the water surged and boiled turbulently, and an iridescent fin suddenly emerged. A few snakes toppled off of John’s back in sheer terror, screaming “Monster! Monster!”, but they hadn’t seen the worst of it yet. An enormous head erupted out of the water, electric blue and covered in scales. Huge bulging eyes shone green-not the green like John’s eyes, but luminescent and freely emitting hate. The fin that they had seen earlier ran all the way down its back, and as the massive being reared up-how this was possible since it had the shape of a snake was unbeknownst to all- it opened its mouth, as large as a volcano opening, and hundreds of rows of foot-long fangs were suddenly visible, dripping a yellow substance that hissed as it made contact with the water. The whole beast was ten times a mountain top. Thick as a the length of John. A sea serpent.
A dozen more snakes toppled off. Nearly as quick as John’s own reflexes, the serpent’s ginormous head dipped down and its mouth came up full of the writhing snakes, synchronically screaming before their last words were silenced by the gnashing of the monster’s teeth.
“It’s smiling. How can it be smiling?”John muttered to himself as if in a daze, but his eyes begged to differ. John’s eyes darted about the surroundings anxiously, as he willed his paws to propel himself forward the last fifty yards. But John remained paralysed with fear, unable to move though his mind-and the rest of the snakes-screamed
“GO!”(To reach the land.)
“Go! Come on! Come on! We must go, we must go!” Hugo’s voice somehow shook him out of his state of paralysis. Growling with frustration, John gave a side glance towards the monster. It was watching the procession with an air of mild interest, a cat watching a fleet of mice scurry around when it knew their death was inevitable.
John sliced through the water as fast as he could, quicker than he would have ever dreamed possible. Panic was a buoy, no matter how hard John pushed it down; it came back up immediately without a second thought.
“Faster, faster, faster, Mister Tiger sir, we must go faster!” The snake reared up and alternated prodding John with his head and shouting requests for speed.
Lazily, the sea serpent dipped down in the restless waves and glided smoothly towards John, as if the lake was metal and the serpent was greased. But John couldn’t look at it now, not with Death itself looming up before them all.
Suddenly a snake towards the back gave a screech, drowned out by the screams of the others. The sea serpent was picking off victims one by one, and John knew soon enough he would be next. Not particularly relishing in this fate, John swiveled around and, as the gruesome head bent down for another snake, he sank his tremendous teeth into the serpent’s neck and latched on.
The sea serpent froze with a snake still between its teeth. John, all confidence dissipated, released his hold. The serpent rose up and dropped down in a violent motion once, as if gagging, freeing the thankful snake that slithered back to her siblings.
As the serpent let out a last ear-splitting bellow, before collapsing in the thrashing waves, John felt his massive white teeth eroding away from the yellow substance-venom, he presumed.
“You did it, you did it, now we can go to the Pool of Shadows, we can!” The snakes hissed and celebrated joyfully, contrary to the way John was feeling.
“Let’s just get this over with, shall we?” John grumbled moodily as he scrambled onto the opposite bank. He rapidly shook his massive self to banish all passengers.
“We found it! It’s here! We found it!” A snake indistinguishable from the others was already moving towards a patch of black, hurriedly followed by the others.
What have I gotten myself into? John thought as he headed slowly towards the direction the snakes were going.
Without dimension. This was the first thing John noticed about the Pool of Shadows, the unfathomable dimensions of the pool. It moved constantly, yet it stayed in one place. From one perspective, it seemed deeper than the darkest depths of the ocean, from another, it seemed to be the depth of a picture. It couldn’t be a thing; it was as much a substance as thoughts were. But, unlike thoughts, the shadows were alive. John felt it as soon as he approached within a few meters of the pool. It was as a wave of, well, darkness washing over him, drowning the world in grey. All lights. All thoughts. Gone.
In a trance, John took a step forward to the snakes bathing in the pool. Then another, he couldn’t stop himself. As John almost reached the pool, he stretched out his paw towards the shadows-a foot away-an inch away-
“ARGH!” he drew his paw back, marveling at his own stupidity. He suddenly backed away hastily, fearing that another side of him would attempt to touch the Pool of Shadows. Look at those snakes, he thought, they aren’t even speaking. How unusual. Then, with a jolt, he realized that the slimy creatures were in as much of a trance as he had been. Then he remembered something Hugo had chattered about. The memory of the warning echoed in his ears. “Mother wanted you to come with us, she did, yes, because the Pool of Shadows has a strange lure to it, and when the first snake touches the pool you must bring us back, you must…”, John scrambled to his travelers.
“COME HERE!” John bellowed with the force of an elephant (not that they would know what an elephant was), and all the snakes turned towards him.
All at once, the snakes started toward John, speaking at once.
“Only one of us was supposed to bathe, Mother will be angry-“
“I could not remember anything for a few minutes, I couldn’t!-“
“SILENCE!” John bellowed yet again. Then, calmer, “What has happened to all of you?”
Slowly, as if just realizing it, the snakes turned to look at each other. Each was the color of midnight, the color of shadows. Screaming, every one scrambled onto John’s back. This time, panicked, the snakes wound themselves around John tightly. For some reason, it burned lightly where the snakes touched him, but John passed it off as nerves.
“You must take us back!” yelled a female snake.
“This is bad, this is very, very bad,” added another.
“I will take you back, but you must not say a word. My head throbs! Say nothing at all, or else.” Not a hiss, nor a scream, nothing only pure silence accented by the crickets resounding in the trees. John sighed with pleasure and relief. He didn’t seem to be affected by the shadows.
Silence followed John all the way back to the now still lake, then onto the opposite shore, where the snakes slithered back to their home. John would have made a snide remark, but his teeth were now too short to seem threatening. The urge to steal the snake’s treasure was gone. John traveled all the way back to where our story began, in the depths of the jungle. A serene look passed over John’s face as he lapped up water from a clear drinking pool. It was only when the water had stilled again when the silence was broken.
“My face! My body! What hideous stripes!” Black stripes, from head to toe, covered his body from where the snakes had wound themselves around him. But could it be true? Sure enough, John confirmed that the stripes were the exact color of the Pool of Shadows. Backing up quickly, John gave a roar that shook the nearby trees (John was never one for crying instead).
No sound was made, however, as he scampered into the dark jungle, swallowed up once again by silence.